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2012 NFL Free Agency Preview: NFC South

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer
Improving the D is critical for the bucs in free agency. (Getty Images)

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons made a bold move in the 2011 NFL Draft, dealing a pile of picks to Cleveland in order to land Julio Jones. The decision was obvious: after losing to the explosive Packers in the playoffs, Atlanta also wanted to make themselves more dangerous offensively. Instead, the team struggled throughout 2011 to find an identity on offense. Fortunately, the Falcons made the playoffs as a wild card anyway. Unfortunately, they posted two points against the Giants in the first round of the playoffs ... which were scored by the defense. Wholesale coaching-staff changes indicate the Falcons will keep striving to become more dangerous on offense.

Free Agents of Note
John Abraham wants $12 million a year, which is laughable ... Kroy Biermann's already been re-signed ... Same goes for safety Thomas DeCoud ... Same for running back Jason Snelling ... Cornerback Brent Grimes got the franchise tag ... Wideout Harry Douglas hasn't posted big stats relative to the money he wants ... Curtis Lofton is a necessary target to re-sign ... Eric Weems is a special-teams talent that the team needs back ... Center Todd McClure is a good candidate to return.

Just like last season, the Falcons could use some pass-rush help. The problem? They don't have a ton of money to spend as of right now. Middle linebacker might not be a "need" with Lofa Tatupu signed, but, um, yeah. He's not Lofton. And are things going to get awkward if Michael Turner really starts going downhill?

With Abraham gone, Falcons fans would probably love the team to target Mario Williams. But they'll need more money. Someone like Jeremy Mincey makes more sense, if they're going to chase a higher-end, uh, end. There are some good, cheap, run-stuffing middle linebackers out there: Dan Connor and Joe Mays come to mind. The offensive line market is getting flooded late, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the Falcons make some depth additions there either.

Carolina Panthers

After a disastrous 2-14 season in 2010, the Panthers gambled that Cam Newton would be a franchise quarterback. They chose ... wisely. Newton shattered a lot of records and the Panthers won six games, and could've been a playoff team if the defense hadn't been so porous. The offense will remain largely intact, and even though Carolina's lacking in salary-cap room, there's reason to believe the defense can improve. Free agency and the draft should be largely focused on addressing that side of the ball.

Free Agents of Note
Linebacker Dan Connor is an underrated performer against the run ... RFA Geoff Schwartz is a versatile offensive line bounceback candidate and won't be tendered ... Legedu Naanee was not a fan-favorite wideout last season ... Jeremy Shockey is a candidate to retire.

The Panthers desperately need to upgrade their talent at defensive tackle and cornerback. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson would be formidable pass rushers if any one bothered to guard the tackles. Fans say they need to draft a wideout early, but that's fool's gold. Landing another tight end to replace Shockey would be nice for Rob Chudzinski's offense. Building some offensive line depth should be an important goal as well.

As a result of dropping mad cash in 2011, the Panthers have little room under the salary cap. (In fact, depending on when you read this, they might have no room under the salary cap.) They should look to restructure some deals like Thomas Davis' nightmare contract and work out an extension for franchise wideout Steve Smith. A cheap, veteran defensive tackle would make a lot of sense: Luis Castillo played for Ron Rivera. Shaun Rogers was good for the Saints last season. Pat Sims has some upside. Expect the Panthers to lean heavily on the draft.

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans had a record-setting season that got really ugly really quickly following a playoff loss to the 49ers. They're now in the middle of "BountyGate" (ugh) and there's really no telling when their nightmare offseason will come to a conclusion. New Orleans is the team most happy by Peyton Manning's free agency: it distracts everyone else from the league preparing to drop the hammer. The Saints will need to re-stock the defensive cupboard, and they're going to need a lot of depth, particularly if a significant number of players are handed suspensions from the league for their participation in bounty programs.

Free Agents of Note
Drew Brees got the franchise tag because the team failed to work out a deal with him ... Carl Nicks is an All-Pro guard who looks as good as gone ... Rumors swirled Monday night that the Saints were working on a long-term deal with Marques Colston ... Robert Meachem seems destined to test the market ... Tracy Porter is young enough to get paid by someone else ... Defensive linemen Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin are wild cards for getting re-signed depending on how new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo feels ...

New Orleans defense (the offense should be fine, outside of a guard addition) will be interesting next year: whereas Gregg Williams likes to send tons of blitzers from crazy angles, Steve Spagnuolo would probably prefer to generate a "natural" pass rush. So the Saints could stand for a serious upgrade along the defensive line. Wide receiver will be a serious need if both Colston and Meachem leave.

Fortunately for New Orleans, there are a pile of defensive options out there: without spending on Mario Williams, the Saints could chase someone like Kendall Langford or Mark Anderson and hope it pans out. They'll need to look for defensive tackle help too. Juqua Parker or Pat Sims could make sense. Colston makes sense to re-sign, simply because his value is higher in New Orleans than anywhere else.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Talk about a step back: the Buccaneers were the feel-good story of 2010 and then spent the final weeks of 2011 posting absolutely embarrassing defensive numbers. It cost Raheem Morris his job and now Greg Schiano is in town to instill discipline on a roster that got too cozy with a young coach. There's talent on the Bucs and there's also salary-cap room: it'll be interesting to see how much they spend to chase big-name free agents in the hopes of getting back near the top of a competitive division this offseason.

Free Agents of Note
Kicker Connor Barth got the franchise tag, which is always a good sign ... Ronde Barber may or may not retire ... Backup quarterback Josh Johnson is an interesting departure candidate ... Both Earnest Graham and LeGarrette Blount are free agents, though Blount is restricted ... Michael Spurlock and Preston Parker departing could test the already-thin depth at wideout ... Linebacker Geno Hayes is probably moving on.

Cornerback could become a major problem if Barber retires and Aqib Talib ends up jail, especially when the Bucs play Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan six times a year. Blount improved his game last year but his stats dipped; Schiano is a guy who likes a workhorse back so it's hard to imagine him loving Blount. Tampa's wideouts are a collection of guys who are best served in WR2 roles. Gerald McCoy's return will help Tampa improve their league-worst run defense, but so would adding some run-stuffing linebackers.

There's a rumor out there that Tampa could chase a Vincent Jackson and Cortland Finnegan combo. That would be stout, not to mention precisely what the Bucs need. I'm convinced they're going to take Trent Richardson, but they could go Morris Claiborne (and sign Michael Bush?) if Mark Dominek can't get lure an elite cornerback in free agency. Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton or Connor would all make sense. So would making a run at a younger outside linebacker like Manny Lawson or Erin Henderson.
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